Huesemann, M.H., Hausmann, T.S., Bartha, R. et al. Appl Biochem Biotechnol (2009) 157: 507. doi:10.1007/s12010-008-8298-9
Microalgae are expected to play a significant role in greenhouse gas mitigation because they can utilize CO2 from power plant flue gases directly while producing a variety of renewable carbon-neutral biofuels. In order for such a microalgal climate change mitigation strategy to become economically feasible, it will be necessary to significantly improve biomass productivities. One approach to achieve this objective is to reduce, via mutagenesis, the number of light-harvesting pigments, which, according to theory, should significantly improve the light utilization efficiency, primarily by increasing the light intensity at which photosynthesis saturates (Is). Employing chemical (ethylmethylsulfonate) and UV mutagenesis of a wild-type strain of the diatom Cyclotella, approximately 10,000 pigment mutants were generated, and two of the most promising ones (CM1 and CM1-1) were subjected to further testing in both laboratory cultures and outdoor ponds. Measurements of photosynthetic oxygen production rates as a function of light intensity (i.e., P–I curves) of samples taken from laboratory batch cultures during the exponential and linear growth phase indicated that the light intensity at which photosynthesis saturates (Is) was two to three times greater in the pigment mutant CM1-1 than in the wild type, i.e., 355–443 versus 116–169 μmol/m2 s, respectively. While theory, i.e., the Bush equation, predicts that such a significant gain in Is should increase light utilization efficiencies and thus biomass productivities, particularly at high light intensities, no improvements in biomass productivities were observed in either semi-continuous laboratory cultures or outdoor ponds. In fact, the maximum biomass productivity in semi-continuous laboratory culture was always greater in the wild type than in the mutant, namely 883 versus 725 mg/L day, respectively, at low light intensity (200 μmol/m2 s) and 1,229 versus 1,043 mg/L day, respectively, at high light intensity (1,000 μmol/m2 s). Similarly, the biomass productivities measured in outdoor ponds were significantly lower for the mutant than for the wild type. Given that these mutants have not been completely characterized in these initial studies, the exact reasons for their poor performance are not known. Most likely, it is possible that the mutation procedure affected other photosynthetic or metabolic processes. This hypothesis was partially validated by the observation that the pigment mutant had a longer lag period following inoculation, a lower maximum specific growth rate, and poorer stability than the wild type.